By Ed White, Associated Press
JACKSON (AP) – Good conduct makes Leon Echols eligible for a number of jobs in prison: porter, barber, cook. He chooses to be a photographer in the visitor room, taking pictures of other inmates and their families.
“I can see children. I can feel normal,” Echols, 43, explained. “I love being able to see families interacting with each other. I’m not an inmate for that moment.”
And he could be an inmate forever.
Echols has been a Michigan prisoner nearly 25 years — his entire adult life — for killing a man during a sudden dispute over a car near Detroit. In 1989, Judge Michael Talbot sentenced the 18-year-old to a minimum of 75 years, an astonishing punishment when the guidelines called for a minimum of 10 to 25.
Echols essentially is serving a life sentence. Years of good behavior will shave time, but he’ll still have to live to age 83 to file his first application for parole.
“That’s the injustice,” he said.
In March, the Michigan Supreme Court turned down his personal 40-page appeal for help but noticed the unusual facts. The justices said he could apply to have his sentence shortened by a governor, a difficult process with extremely long odds of success. Justice Michael Cavanagh, however, said Echols deserved more from the state’s top court.
“This is an exceptional case in which defendant’s sentence is illegal,” wrote Cavanagh, who believes a new sentence is appropriate.
University of Michigan law professor Paul Reingold said: “These are the saddest cases because the injustice seems patent, but the avenues for relief are closed off by procedural rules or substantive reservations.”
Echols spoke to The Associated Press at the Cotton prison in Jackson. Without making excuses or blaming others, he described his turbulent childhood, the circumstances of the crime and his unrestrained optimism about winning freedom someday and becoming a mentor to young people.
Prison has “saved my life, but I don’t want it to be the sum of my life,” Echols said. “I see guys go home every Tuesday. I say one day it’s going to be me.”
He said he spent the ’80s as a kid in foster homes and group homes while his mother was in prison. His last stop was a home in Kalamazoo before he returned to Detroit at age 18 with few life skills and began selling drugs.
In 1989, on the day of a downtown rally to celebrate the NBA champion Detroit Pistons, Echols was with a friend who was interested in a used car. He said he was in the back seat when the owner in the front seat began arguing with his pal over price. Echols pulled a gun and fired, although he insists he killed Flery Ivery in self-defense.
“He just went berserk,” Echols said, showing a scar on his hand. “He grabbed something from under the seat and came up — wham! I knew I was hit with something. I’m dripping blood. … I didn’t go there looking to kill a man. I had no malice in my heart. I swear to God I didn’t want that to happen.”
“We were knuckleheads. When you’re insecure and young,” Echols added, “you do foolish stuff.”
He said he turned down a plea deal because he genuinely felt he shot in self-defense. A Wayne County jury, however, convicted him of second-degree murder. Guidelines called for a minimum sentence of 10 to 25 years, but Talbot, the judge, felt it wasn’t enough. He ordered 75 to 150 years, plus two years for using a gun.
Why? It’s not known today because the transcript is missing. In 1992, the Michigan appeals court affirmed the conviction and sentence, saying Talbot “thoroughly explained his reasons” to stretch far beyond the guidelines.
Talbot, now an appeals court judge, declined to be interviewed by the AP.
Dennis Kolenda, a former Kent County judge who knows Talbot, said Echols’ punishment doesn’t seem fair because it puts the opportunity for parole so far out of reach.
“How can we decide what a person will be like in 20, 25 years? Let’s structure a sentence that recognizes the possibility that people change,” Kolenda said.
Cavanagh of the Supreme Court said Talbot abused his authority and seemed to have chosen a sentence just to ensure that Echols never gets a parole hearing unless he’s still alive in his 80s.
Echols was “only 18 years old and had one prior conviction for cocaine possession,” Cavanagh wrote in March. “Defendant’s youth at the time of the offense and his lack of a violent history do not support the trial court’s contention that he deserves abnormal punishment or that he poses a greater danger to society than others who have been convicted of second-degree murder.”
Gov. Rick Snyder has commuted, or changed, the sentences of only four inmates, all because of failing health, said Corrections Department spokesman Russ Marlan.
In 2010, Echols asked the parole board to recommend a commutation to Gov. Jennifer Granholm but was turned down, Marlan said.
“Only in rare circumstances does the board feel they should step in and do something different than what was handed down by the sentencing court,” Marlan said.
Echols brought a folder to his interview with the AP. It was stuffed with certificates about his accomplishments behind bars, including a play he wrote in 2010 about an inmate preparing to get out and become a mentor. He said “Tighten Up” was performed twice in prison.
“It can take the wind out of your sails but I’m not giving up,” Echols said of his efforts to win release. “Everyone who sees me doesn’t equate my sentence with me. This place is for monsters. There are people who need to be here. But me? I’ve done my time.”
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